Picture a runner. On flat ground their breath and strides remain steady and effortless, but then they round a corner and hit a hill with 10% grade. Everything, from their pace to their breathing, changes. Immediately their quads take the brunt of the work, their breath loses its cadence, and the hill beats them before they even begin. Now imagine a climber, working on their 5.12a project, with a slight overhanging crux, gastons galore, and one big move with no feet to propel them upwards. In a moment of panic, they clench their jaw, become heavy, forget to breathe, and blow the crux. Just like the uphill runner, they lost control. The same happens in yoga. Utkatasana (chair pose) becomes a quadricep-burning nightmare until the yogi bales out and moves to uttanasana (forward fold). In all three of these situations breath and core strength played an enormous role. Breath control, circulatory control, and core control heavily impact an athlete’s physical and mental performance – all of which can be cultivated through a focused yoga practice.
An athlete seeks mastery, no matter what their sport. Too frequently, however, that very same athlete will plateau because of one very simple reason: their training represents only one of many training techniques. Their body adapts to their current regimen and their progress grinds to a halt. Gaining total body control and mastering one’s discipline requires getting comfortable in varying dimensions of their sport. In other words, you have to get uncomfortable. Training your body to quickly adapt to changes and challenging situations starts with controlling your emotions using your respiratory system and core strength. In yoga, these are called bandhas, the sanskrit word meaning “to lock” or “to hold.” When you achieve awareness of the three principal bandhas you gain the fourth – mastery over all three, ultimately making you lighter, quicker, and steady.
Training should prepare you to overcome these moments of panic; training should give you more emotional control. The good news is that yoga can help you with this. The three principal bandhas teach you to maintain long, deep breaths, keep a calm nervous system, and build an awareness of your central power source. Shall we begin?
The Jalandhara Bandha is located in the throat and, when utilized properly, helps control your nervous system and regulates the oxygenation of your blood. Long, steady inhales and exhales in a yoga practice help you maintain presence of mind, preventing moments of panic when you feel like utkatasana might break your quadriceps. Jalandhara Bandha not only regulates your circulatory system, but it also focuses your mental acuity, making it one of the key elements to remain “present” and “in the moment.” The most practical breathing technique in which you will encounter Jalandhara Bandha is ujjayi breath.
To identify the location and feeling of this bandha, sit up straight and take in a long inhale through the nose while constricting the back of your throat, creating an oceanic sound. As you fill up with breath, tuck your chin down towards your sternum while lifting up through the back of your neck. Notice the sensation in the upper back of your sinuses and throat. Exhale through your nose, again keeping the constriction, as if you were trying to fog up a mirror or make a Darth Vader sound (but with your mouth closed). Practice making each inhale and exhale the same length (inhale for five seconds and exhale for five seconds). Over time your respiratory control will grow, your breaths will be longer and more powerful, and you will then be prepared to start practicing more advanced breathing techniques.
Moving further down the body, the Uddiyana Bandha is located in your diaphragm and lower abdominal muscles. Uddiyana means “to fly up,” which hopefully gives you the mental image of pulling your inner core muscles up into your rib cage, lifting your energy upwards, and making you feel weightless. A large percentage of yogis, climbers, and runners are all guilty of being lazy at one time or another. They let their core and their extremities go limp; therefore, they become dense, heavy, and clumsy. For yogis, this means hanging out in their joints while holding a pose like utthita parsvakonasana (extended side angle pose). For climbers it means you forget to use your core and legs and pump-out your forearms on a 5.8. For runners and cyclists it means heel pounding, hips that rock back and forth, a hunched torso, and tight shoulders. Once you gain control of this bandha, you will notice a great deal of difference in your performance, no matter what activity or sport you do.
To feel Uddiyana bandha, sit in easy pose and place your hand just below your navel. As you breathe in, picture your breath filling your chest, rib cage, and finally your belly. As you exhale, pull your abdomen in, pressing your hand against your lower abs. Imagine pulling your navel up and into your rib cage as you “deflate” your belly. That is the Uddiyana bandha – your core center of stability. As you exhale and pull your abdomen in, you hollow out the area beneath your rib cage and lift everything upwards. Next time you are holding virabhadrasana one (warrior one pose) practice using this bandha. Or, even better, next time you plow up a hill while running, pull your low belly in and tuck your pelvic bone – I promise it will feel like you just downshifted to a lower gear and gained some additional horsepower.
Mula translates to “root,” and this bandha literally forms the root of your core’s central strength. You probably already know where it is – it is the muscle you use when waiting in line for the public restroom. The mull bandha is made up of the muscles located at your pelvic floor. These muslces play a huge part in establishing your balance and over all control. Mula bandha, when mastered, helps you to keep your energy flowing upwards instead of down and out. No matter if you are practicing handstands or if you are sprinting down a mountain trail, control over this bandha means you maintain control over your center of gravity and will have the sensation that you are light as a feather.
Accessing this core muscle can take work, but once you do, you’ll feel a much greater amount of lift in poses, especially arm balances. As you breathe, squeeze the muscle between your tailbone and your pubic bone. One visual to think of, all though it may seem a bit graphic, is to imagine a zipper from your pubic bone up to your navel. As you pull the zipper upward, continue to breathe. Practice using the Mula bandha in your next yoga class. When you step forward from downward facing dog to a crescent lunge, pull this muscle in and try to place your foot as lightly as possible on the mat between your hands. The stronger this core muscle, the lighter your foot will float and the more graceful you will feel.
The Maha Bandha is the fourth bandha and is the utilization of all three principals at once. Your endocrine system will benefit from practicing Maha bandha long with your circulatory system, respiratory system, nervous system, and even your metabolism. Remember the analogy of the runner panicking and losing all power while heading up that hill? Practice utilizing Maha bandha will help solve that problem and any other stressful situation by granting you emotional and physical control.
Practice from sukhasana (easy pose). Sitting with legs crossed, lift up your chest and sit tall. Start with your breath. Inhale through your nose using ujjayi breath. As you exhale, squeeze the Uddiyana bandha (your lower abdomen and diaphragm) until every ounce of air has exited your system. Hold that exhale and engage Mula bandha (you know, your roots). From here, keep engagement of both Mula and Uddiyana, and continue Jalandhara (your breath). The result is the feeling of lightness as you pull all of your muscles and energy upwards while remaining stable with your breath. Tittibhasana (firefly pose) is one such pose where Maha bandha becomes evident.
Try to imagine as you breathe that you are trying to hold a softball with your abdomen. You tuck and lift your pelvis and squeeze your belly in whilst maintaining a steady breath. For an even better visual, picture renowned jiu jitsu and MMA fighter Rickson Gracie’s cameo role in The Incredible Hulk. You know, the scene when he teaches Ed Norton how to control his breathing and demonstrates some killer abdominal control? That is Maha bandha.
In any situation, focusing your energy with your breath and core strength can help you progress and master any challenge whether it be a steep uphill run, tittibhasana (firefly pose, pictured at top), or even keeping a level head in a stressful social setting. By strengthening the yoga bandhas, you can improve any practice, be it yoga, running, climbing, or even cycling. You will be surprised how much of an impact it will have on your athletic performance and your overall emotional demeanor.